Knockin’ on Heaven’s Illusory Door: Life & Death, East & West

Journey of Life & Death 001.jpgMama, take this badge off of me I can’t use it anymore. It’s getting dark, too dark to see I feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door. Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door. Mama, put my guns in the ground I can’t shoot them anymore. That long black cloud is coming down I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door. Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.   Bob Dylan

Life’s journey will end in death we all know it, we all deny it, and few truly face it.

There has never been a more poignant view into the abyss than Sam Peckinpah offered in his 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. In the memorable scene Sheriff Garrett (James Coburn) accompanied by Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) and his wife (Katy Jurado) ride into an adobe homestead looking for Billy. In the ensuing gunfight Slim Pickens is mortally wounded, he staggers slowly toward the setting sun as Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door begins playing. Katy Jurado follows as Pickens sits holding his bleeding stomach by the side of a slow moving river. No words are exchanged as Pickens and Jurado look at each other, knowing it will be the last time.

No death in history has been more analyzed and commented upon than Jesus’ death on the The Day the Revolution Began 001.jpgcross. In his new book noted Anglican theologian N.T. Wright approaches the subject anew with the question, “What would happen if, instead of seeing the resurrection (both of Jesus and of ourselves) as a kind of happy addition to an otherwise complete view of salvation, we saw it as part of its very heart?” The issue he suggests is, “That when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as result of which the world is a different place . . . Jesus’s crucifixion was the day the revolution began.” Well said.

Wright continues, “At the heart of it all is the achievement of Jesus as the true human being who, as the ‘image’, is the ultimate embodiment (or incarnation) of the creator God. His death, the climax of his work of inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, was the victory over the destructive powers let loose into the world not simply through human wrongdoing, the breaking of moral codes, but through the human failure to be image-bearers, to worship the Creator and reflect his wise stewardship into the world (and to be sure, breaking any moral codes that might be around, but that is not the focus).”

Wright’s examination of the many aspects of Jesus’ death is laudable. His conclusion that “Humans are made not for ‘heaven’, but for the new heavens and a new earth” is well stated.

We don’t need ‘Eschatology‘ which maps out an ultimate future (death, judgement, heaven and hell). Or ‘Atonement‘ which offers the death of Jesus as forgiveness or pardoning of our own sins through the death of Jesus. Really, as if clever philosophical phrases and arguments will guide us through our own death. The Gospel of Thomas has the proper response to these queries, don’t ask them. Focus rather on what Jesus taught. He offered us a way to navigate death successfully, we need only follow.

Reading The Day the Revolution Began I felt as if I was witnessing an effort to summarize the wide fabric of America’s culture by counting the stitches on the flag. The limits of theology are plain. The old axiom used to be if you want to convey the true experience of space flight you need to put a poet into orbit. Hence the mystic, combined with a grasp of theology the difference is palpable. To grasp the limits to Wright’s work read and compare with  SOPHIA, The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton.

Illusory Kalu Rinpoche 001.jpgYou live in illusion and in the appearance of things. There is a reality. You are the reality. If you wake up to that reality, you will know that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That’s all. –  Kalu Rinpoche

No culture has delved as deeply into death, in all its dimensions, than Vajrayana Buddhism. Karma Rangjung Kunkhyab (Kalu Rinpoche) was one of the first master yogis entrusted by Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa, to bring Vajrayana teachings to the west. karmapa-kalu-rinpoche-001Having entered his three year retreat for lama training at age fifteen and then spending twelve years in solitary retreat in the Himalayan mountains of Kham, Eastern Tibet, Kalu Rinpoche was an authentic master in the Kagyu tradition that dates its origin to Tilopa one thousand years ago. Rinpoche (shown here with the Karmapa in 1973) introduced the traditional three year retreat method of Jamgon Kontrul in France and then New York and Canada. Kalu Rinpoche was one of the Tibetans Thomas Merton met with shortly before his death in 1968. Their conversation is discussed in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton.

kagy-monlam-87-copyright-drolma-birneyIn 1983  Kalu Rinpoche, as head of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, presided over the first Kagyu Monlam (Aspiration Prayers) celebration in Bodhgaya, India. This event,  which lasted two weeks was attended by two hundred monks, nuns and lay people. The fifth monlam in 1987 lasted three weeks (shown here from left to right: Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche and Bokar Rinpoche). Many of the attendees were dedicated American lay students who also received three year retreat empowerments from Kalu Rinpoche. Lay practitioners are the the skeletal strength and backbone of any monastic system, these yogins are the ties which prevent the rails from coming apart. All structured religious systems combine appearance with illusion. The more hierarchical the more illusion, simple really, no choice. A yogi has no need of title or label.

Niguma 001.jpgActually Kalu Rinpoche’s esoteric roots were sunk in the eleventh century when a Tibetan adept named Khyungpo Naljor (Yogi of the Garuda Clan), dissatisfied with the level of experience his intensive learning had brought him, traveled to India  seeking answers. Find Niguma he was told. Niguma was a legendary rainbow bodied dakini and Naropa’s sister. Having received the teachings he sought Khyungpo Naljor was admonished to limit their transmission to one person for each of seven succeeding generations. Returning to Tibet he settled in the Shang  region and became the “Guru of Shang”, hence the Shangpa Kagyu. His lineage was revived by Jamgon Kongtrul in the late nineteenth century. Kalu Rinpoche received the teachings in the 1940’s and popularized them in the west. A distinguishing feature of advanced Tibetan Buddhist practitioners is the ability  to manifest a ‘rainbow body’, that is to dematerialize their physical form as shown in the picture of Kalu Rinpoche above. Illusory Body teachings are one of the Six Dharmas of Niguma. More on all of this can be found in Sarah Hardings excellent study, NIGUMA: Lady of Illusion. The current Kalu Rinpoche (yangsi) said about this book: Niguma is Niguma. A book is a book. If you read with discernment, however, and put what is written in practice, you just might meet Niguma face to face.Rainbow Body & Resurrection 001.jpg

The Catholic Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, who has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and studied Zen Buddhism for many years, became interested in the phenomena of rainbow bodies. He requested one of his students, Father Francis V. Tiso, formerly Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, to investigate the relationship between the Buddhist tradition and Christianity, Rainbow Body and Resurrection explains Father Tiso’s findings. This is one of the most interesting efforts ever to explore spiritual phenomena and science without shortchanging either camp. Well done, and thanks to Brother Stendl-Rast and Father Tiso.

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When our flights of theology and rainbow dynamics have left us winded and wondering, what does this all do to improve the lot of suffering humanity, we can look to the answer provided by the author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. He wrote The Kingdom of God is Within You after meditating on the life of Jesus and the failure of the Russian Orthodox Church to live up to the challenges Jesus laid down. The book was published in Germany after being banned in Russia. Tolstoy laid down the guidelines by which Gandhi and Martin Luther King revolutionized society. Tolstoy developed the radical concept of putting the words of Jesus into direct action. We allow tyranny only when we don’t confront it. Gandhi said The Kingdom of God is Within You was one of the three most important influences in his life.

Albert Schweitzer was a noted ProtestantAlbert Schweitzer - Strasbourg 001.jpg theologian, classical concert organist, pastor of St. Nicholas church and principal of St. Thomas College in Strasbourg, then in Germany. He was completing work on the book which would revolutionize contemporary views on Jesus, The Quest of the Historical Jesus and a critical analysis of Johann Sebastian Bach that led to the composer’s influence we feel today. Yet, he felt unfulfilled, he was describing faith not living it.

Let us see how Schweitzer himself describes his evolution. One brilliant summer morning at Gunsbach as I awoke, the thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune as a matter of course, but must give something in return. While outside the birds sang I reflected on this thought, and before I had gotten up I came to the conclusion that until I was thirty I could consider myself justified in devoting myself to scholarship and the arts, but after that I would devote myself to serving humanity. I had already tried many times to find the meaning that lay hidden in the saying of Jesus: “Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it.” What the character of my future activities would be was not yet clear to me. I left it to chance to guide me. Only one thing was certain, that it must be direct human service, however inconspicuous its sphere.

One morning in the autumn of 1904 I found on my writing table in the seminary one of the green-covered magazines in which the Paris Missionary Society reported on its activities every month. Without paying much attention, I leafed through the magazine. As I was about to turn to my studies, I noticed an article with the headline “The Needs of the Congo Mission”. The author complained that the mission did not have enough people to carry on its work in the Gabon, the northern province of the Congo colony. The writer expressed the hope that his appeal would bring some of those “on whom the Master’s eyes already rested” to a decision to offer themselves for this urgent work. The article concluded: “Men and women who can reply simply to the Master’s call, “Lord, I am coming, those are the people the church needs.” I finished my article and quietly began my work. My search was over.

In a stunning act of faith and devotion Albert Scweitzer resigned his various positions and began a seven year course of study which resulted in his receiving a medical degree. His medical dissertation fittingly enough was, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus.

Scweitzer’s decision to embark on a medical career with the stated purpose of venturing to Equatorial Africa was met with outrage and derision by his friends and family. Again, in Albert and Helene Schweitzer 001.jpgSchweitzer’s own words: I had assumed that familiarity with the sayings of Jesus would give a much better comprehension of what to popular logic is not rational. Several times, indeed, my appeal to the obedience that Jesus’ command of love requires under certain circumstances earned me an accusation of conceit. How I suffered to see so many people assuming the right to tear open the doors and shutters of my inner self!

Albert Schweitzer was not alone. As is so often the case he was accompanied on his journey by an extraordinary woman, Helene Bresslau. (Photos from Schweitzer; A Biography) She was the one person who understood and supported his decision. Her family in Berlin was Jewish but converted to Christianity and moved to Strasbourg to avoid persecution. When Schweitzer made his decision to attend medical school she quit her job at an orphanage and studied nursing. They married in 1912 and on Good Friday in 1913 set out for Lambaréné, Gabon.

Following the Enlightened Mind path of Niguma and the Sacred Heart teachings of Jesus we can embark forward in the 21st Century marrying the complimentary visions of Buddhism and Christianity to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. You can’t do Christ from the couch!

The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson


Kennedy & Merton: Raids on the Unspeakable

Jfk & Unspeakable 001Great beings often walk among us without notice. Occasionally, their brief lives flash through our world, casting an arc of intense light into the darkest shadows. John F. Kennedy and Thomas Merton were such men.

The great tasks of magnanimous men — to establish with truth, justice, charity, and liberty, new methods of relationships in human society — the task of bringing about true peace in the order established by God. We publicly praise such men and earnestly invite them to persevere in their work with ever greater zeal. It is an imperative of duty; it is a requirement of love.Pope John XXIII

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (November 22, 1963) one outstanding question appears even more relevant than ever: Was John Kennedy the victim of a plot hatched within one of America’s government agencies? And if so, what are the further implications? James Douglass provides some answers in JFK and the UNSPEAKABLE: Why He Died and Why It Matters.

Along with a detective’s eye for the trail of evidence and a journalist’s passion for a gripping tale, Douglass walks us through Kennedy’s progression from Cold Warrior to Peace Visionary. He brings a unique and powerful focus to his work by combining Kennedy’s pilgrimage with that of Thomas Merton. James Douglass is well suited for this indomitable task. In 1962-64, he was studying theology in Rome and lobbying at the Second Vatican Conference where he met Norman Cousins, who played the role of a secret messenger between Kennedy and Khrushchev. JFK and the Unspeakable is an indispensable book as we reflect on Kennedy’s legacy.

          John F. Kennedy was no saint. Nor was he any apostle of nonviolence. However, as we are all called to do, he was turning. TESHUVAH, ‘turning’, the rabbinic word for repentance, is the explanation for Kennedy’s short-lived, contradictory journey toward peace. He was turning from what would have been the worst violence in history toward a new, more powerful peaceful possibility in his and our lives. He was therefore in deadly conflict with THE UNSPEAKABLE, a term Thomas Merton coined at the heart of the sixties after JFK’s assassination–in the midst of the escalating Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the further assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. In each of those soul-shaking events Merton sensed an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe. . . JFK’s assassination is rooted in our denial of our nation’s crimes in World War II that began the Cold War and the nuclear arms race . . . By avoiding our responsibility for the escalating crimes of our state done for our security, we who failed to confront The Unspeakable opened the door to JFK’s assassination and its cover-up. — JFK and the Unspeakable

History has provided us with overwhelming evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was an unwitting pawn in a larger conspiracy. We are ever more aware of the remarkable tally of persons with knowledge of the events in Dallas who died within several years of the assassination. Mark Lane’s LAST WORD: My Indictment of the CIA in the Murder of JFK and Richard Belzer’s HIT LIST: An In-Depth Investigation of the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination lay out many disturbing details.

Immediately after President Kennedy’s assasination, three eyewitnesses saw two men — neither of which resembled Lee Harvey Oswald — kill Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit. It turned out that none of those witnesses were called before the Warren Commission. In addition, before the assassination, George de Mohrenchildt, who was a known associate of the CIA, procured a job for Oswald in Dallas after Oswald returned from Russia as a presumed traitor. Mohrenchildt was found dead in 1977 from a gunshot the day before he was scheduled to testify before Congress about events involving the Kennedy assassination. During the same period in 1977, six FBI officials with connections to the case died; three from heart attacks, one from an accidental fall, and one from a ‘long illness’. The sixth, William C. Sullivan, former head of Domestic Intelligence for the FBI, was shot by a high-powered rifle close to his New Hampshire home. Sullivan was scheduled to give his testimony to Congress the following week.

Another mysterious death was that of Dorothy Kilgallen, a syndicated news reporter and regular on the TV show, What’s My Line. She was the only reporter who interviewed Jack Ruby after he killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Kilgallen was obsessed with proving there had been a coverup in the Kennedy case and was writing a book on the assassination. In 1965, after telling friends she was close to revealing the truth, Kilgallen was found dead in her Manhattan apartment from a mixture of barbiturates and alcohol. Conveniently, her notes were never found. She had even given back-up notes to her friend, Florence Smith, who died one day after Kilgallen. Once again, those notes also disappeared. The list goes on and on.

          We have no evidence as to who in the military-industrial complex may have given the order to assassinate President Kennedy. That the order was carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency is obvious. The CIA’s fingerprints are all over the crime and the events leading to it. — JFK and the Unspeakable

The Bay of Pigs fiasco led a disgusted John Kennedy to fire Allen Dulles as head of the CIA. Ironically, Lyndon Johnson later appointed Dulles to head the Warren Commission investigation into Kennedy’s murder. From Our Lady of Gethsemani Trappist monastery in Kentucky, Merton followed the events. He wrote in his journal on November 30, 1963: The South has apparently accepted Kennedy’s death with great satisfaction and absolutely no charity. On the contrary, some have openly regretted that Bobby was not killed . . . The question of murder, the motives, etc. is still extremely unsatisfactory, and though everyone believes the ‘evidence’ discovered by the Dallas police, perhaps it is not as solid as it sounds. . . . The whole thing is grim, mysterious and much graver than people seem to believe, though God knows everyone was shocked. Our feds wanted a solution at any price and have taken the first one they could get. — Dancing in the Waters of Life

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Merton began sending out copies of “The Cold War Letters” to friends as a means to side step Catholic censors with his views. “In actual fact it would seem that during the Cold War, if not during World War II, this country has become frankly a warfare state built on affluence, a power structure in which the interests of big business, the obsessions of the military, and the phobias of political extremists both dominate and dictate our national policy. It also seems that the people of the country are by and large reduced to passivity, confusion, resentment, frustration, thoughtlessness and ignorance, so that they blindly follow any line that is unraveled for them by the mass media . . . President Kennedy is a shrewd and sometimes adventurous leader. He means well and has the highest motives, and he is without doubt, in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd.” Merton also wrote his friend W. H. Ferry,What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what the politicians don’t have: depth, humanity, and a certain totality of self forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe, Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.” 

John F. Kennedy, by many accounts, broke through into that extraordinary space where leaders exhibit greatness. In 1962, Kennedy became involved in the negotiations between the United Steelworkers Union and the United States Steel Company. Determined to fight inflation by keeping the price of steel down, Kennedy brokered a deal whereby the union accepted modest raises with the understanding that U.S. Steel would not raise prices. Immediately upon completion of the deal, Roger Blough, chaiman of the company, announced a price increase of 3.5 percent. John Kennedy was furious and ordered his brother, Robert Kennedy, to begin an immediate anti-trust investigation by the Justice Department. JFK issued a statement: “Some time ago I asked each American to consider what he could do for his country, and I asked the steel companies. In the last 24 hours, we had their answer.”

During his time in office, Kennedy was confronted with the same disparity between corporate wealth and public interest that we see today. Indeed, in the last fifty years, we have received the same response from America’s corporate community as Kennedy did — one of continuous disdain for the nation’s welfare and common good. If only our current president, Barak Obama, had some of Kennedy’s spine we may not be confronting such stupendous lack of justice. Obama’s tepid reaction to the greatest financial fraud in the history of the world has been not only disgraceful but mind-boggling. His promises for a more transparent government and fairness to the middle class have turned out for naught. In addition, he clearly used the support of unions to get elected and then disregarded that support, as did the Democratic Party at-large, by taxing union health care plans to pay for Obamacare.

          Compare our monastery and the General Electric plant in Louisville. Which one is the more serious and more ‘religious’ institution? One might be tempted to say ‘the monastery’ out of sheer habit. But, in fact, the religious seriousness of the monastery is like sandlot baseball compared with the big-league seriousness of General Electric. It may in fact occur to many, including the monks, to doubt the monastery and what it represents. Who doubts G.E.? —  Thomas Merton

Raids on the Unspeakable 001In the winter of 1964-65 Merton made expeditions into the woods around the hermitage to take pictures of the stark but intricate crisscrossing patterns of the branches and twigs against the the sky on a dull day. On another dull day he wondered if he hadn’t wasted far too much film on a jagged stump twisted on its side, which he photographed from every angle, fascinated with the thorn like forms that seemed to jut out with arrested violence from the central core. One such ‘thorn’ pattern appears on the cover of the book of essays he was putting together at the hermitage, Raids on the Unspeakable. It provides a subtle link between seen image and literary subject. The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott.

Deeply affected by Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker magazine, Merton conceived one of his most powerful works — A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann appears in RAIDS ON THE UNSPEAKABLE. One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane . . . We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. . . . We can no longer assume that because a man is ‘sane’ he is therefore in his ‘right’ mind. The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless . . . Torture is nothing new, is it? We ought to be able to rationalize a little brainwashing and genocide . . . Even Christians can shake off their sentimental prejudices about charity, and become sane like Eichmann . . . On the other hand, you will find the pacifists and the ban-the-bomb people are, quite seriously, just as we read in TIME, a little crazy.Thomas Merton

As Merton indicates, we cannot leave it to our national leaders — the “sane ones”  — to lead us out of the ever spiraling cycle of violence the world finds itself in. They, in fact, are crazy. It is up to the “odd balls” and those not willing to accept the so-called sanity of experts to stand as one and say No More.

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Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption. — Baal Shem Tov.
How could this happen? Who did it? And why? These are eternal questions pivotal to Merton’s thoughts on Adolf Eichmamn. In April of 1939, a prison official at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was given the task of establishing a new camp in Oświęcim, Poland. Rudolf Höss made Auschwitz into the most efficient and notorious killing field in history. By 1944, over one million persons were killed, mostly by toxic gas fumes.Thomas Harding tells the story with memorable clarity in HANNS AND RUDOLF: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught The Kommandant of Auschwitz.

War and the profits to be made from it were recurring themes for Thomas Merton. He wrote Ethel Kennedy, Bobby’s wife, in 1961,”There is no getting around the fact that the making and testing of nuclear weapons is profitable and indeed in some sense vital to many people in this country. Hence these people, however sincere may be their motives, tend to be prejudiced in favor of everything that endangers the peace of the world. They may not want war but they live by defense industries and they want weapons. And to want weapons as badly as they do is, I am afraid, tantamount to wanting war. That is how wars are made . . .  I therefore hope and trust that every precaution will be taken to prolong the ban on nuclear testing as long as possible.” 

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We may never know if John Kennedy, a Catholic, read this letter. Thurston Clarke addresses the issue in his wonderful new book, JFK”s LAST HUNDRED DAYS: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of A Great President.Glenn Seaborg, who headed the Atomic Energy Commission and met with Kennedy often that summer [1963], thought he felt more passionately about it than any other measure sponsored by his administration, and called his determination to halt atmospheric testing and the spread of nuclear weapons ‘like a religion’ to him.

The nuclear threat John Kennedy and Thomas Merton so feared remains with us today. Eric Schlosser’s new book Command and Control offers a blunt assessment of the dangers involved. His chilling recount of the military’s nuclear program revolves around an incident that began on September 18, 1980 when an Air Force technician dropped a socket wrench inside a Titan Missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas. This, however, is only the tip of an Abbot and Costello parade of near misses involving nuclear weapons that the military has been concealing for sixty years. These “sane” individuals can no longer be trusted with mankind’s survival. Another Fukushima catastrophe awaits if we don’t stop them.

We now know that JFK was reaching out to Khrushchev and Castro and intended to begin withdrawing from Vietnam after the 1964 election. Instead, the American weapons manufacturers and the generals who buy their products embarked on a fifty year orgasm of failed ventures in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Countless lives and trillions of dollars later, they continue pumping our U.S citizens into a frenzy with relentless second amendment charades. If wars abroad should slack off, well, we can have an endless one here at home against each other. Still, the neocons show no shame or remorse for their assault on Christian morality and human dignity. They continue to profit from war and weapon sales. Their indecencies will not stop until we publish their names and faces and not allow them to hide in the board rooms and executives suites of the world’s arms merchants.

Merton & Friends 001Friendship and faith were the twin elements in Merton’s life. For a fuller appreciation, read MERTON & FRIENDS: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice by James Harford. Merton attended Columbia University in New York City in the late 1930’s. His friend Robert Lax went on to be a world renowned poet and lived most of his life on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea where the Apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation. Edward Rice was an author and photographer who edited the Catholic magazine Jubilee  from 1953 to 1967. The name stems from Jubilate Deo (Praise God). With regular contributions from Lax and Merton Jubilee must have been a wonderful read. It explains why Rice’s biography of Merton, The Man in the Sycamore Tree, was so well written. The title comes from an unpublished novel of Merton’s he wrote in their hippie period in Olean, New York. Jubilee struggled throughout its existence with money. As much as it strangled Merton, the Church sought to stifle the fresh voices rising from the magazine.

Jubilee: A Magazine of the Church and Her People deeply affected its many readers. Lax and Merton made contributions to the publication throughout its existence. Padre Pio, Thích Nhất Hạnh and Maria Montessori were first introduced in its pages. One Albanian nun, later to be known as Mother Teresa, made Jubilee’s office her first stop when she came to America. That the New York diocese discouraged wealthy Catholics from supporting a fresh inspiring voice was a sign of a larger problem. Frank discussions of lapsed Catholics, birth control, and Asian religions angered Church officials.

          Catholics who remember what a powerful impact JUBILEE magazine had on those itching for change in the pre-Vatican II 1950s — lay and religious alike — are tempted to believe it was no less than a twentieth century intervention by the Holy Spirit. — James Harford

Fifty years on, its hard to believe that in 1960 the Father General of the Trappist order forbade Merton to write D.T. Suzuki, a Zen Master, citing communicato cum infidele, communication with the infidel. Merton, of course, continued and his correspondence became legion, then legendary. In 1961, he wrote Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, “I wish I knew more about doing teshuva. It is the only thing that seems to make sense  these days. And in the political dark, I light a small, frail light about peace and hold it up in the whirlwinds.” 

James Carroll, author of CONSTANTINE”S SWORD: The Church and The Jews stated, “Merton, as much as anyone, put us on this road to change, and he remains our steady companion in this unfinished journey. I did not know this in 1961, of course, but Merton was already well along this road, even before I knew that it lay ahead of us. While I was reading his 1948 masterpiece, a monument to a world that had not changed in 700 years, he was using the word, teshuva — already a sign of change he had undergone and a sign that he saw change was necessary, while I was still enthralled with American virtue and American power. I stood moved to tears in the presence of John Kennedy at his Inauguration vowing with him to go anywhere, fight any foe . . . Thomas Merton, at that point, had already written to Ernesto Cardenal — the date is November 20, 1961 — ‘Pray for us. We are starting an American peace movement. It will be very difficult. We are, alas, very late.”  Merton & Judaism

Merton-Soul Searching 001“Merton’s fierce social consciousness and conscience will not let us move from the Jesus tradition of nonviolence . . . Merton disturbs us and has been disturbing us since he began writing in a number of arenas. One arena is his social criticism, his unrelenting commitment to the nonviolence of Jesus. . . . within the Christian tradition, we have made our agreement or compromises with what we call reality. Merton didn’t go there . . . he stayed very much on the side of this prophetic witness of Jesus and the early gospel tradition . . . if we do a reading of his writings on nonviolence, on war, on poverty, on racism, on injustice, his writings are as relevant and contemporary today as when he was writing in the 1950s and 1960s. His writings have an uncanny relevance, a disquieting, uncomfortable relevance.” Kathleen Deignan from the film SOUL SEARCHING: The Journey of Thomas Merton.

Sophia 001The Spirit of God speaks to the faithful in between the lines of divine revelation, telling us things that are not evident to the inspection of scholarship or reason — Thomas Merton.

The seeds of contemplation Merton planted in the spiritual heart of the world must be continuously nourished. “Merton’s mystical theology mines the space between the revealed word and silence.” — SOPHIA: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton

Merton did walk with joy. he walked explosively, bang bang bang. as though fireworks, small and they too, joyful, went off every time his heel hit the ground . . . that was true when he was in college, and it was true when he was just out of college, and it was true the last time I saw him bang bang bang banging down the long hallway of the monastery. he walked with joy, bounced with joy,: knew where he was going.  Robert Lax

On December 10, 1968, twenty-seven years to the day he entered Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky, Thomas Merton died, electrocuted by a fan after taking a shower. He was in Bagkok, Thailand for a conference sponsored by the Benedictine organization Aid for Implementing Monasticism. Before his death he met with many Buddhist luminaries including the Dalai Lama, Ka;u Rinpoche by Merton 001Chogyam Trungpa, and Chatral Rinpoche. He said of Kalu Rinpoche, “He is a small, thin man with a strange concavity at the temples as if his skull had been pressed in by huge thumbs. Soft-spoken like all of them, he keeps fingering his rosary, and patiently answered my many questions on the hermit retreat . . . At first he was evasive about it and talked of Mahayana in general until he was apparently satisfied and said I had the “true Mahayana spirit.” Then he went on in more detail.” Merton & Buddhism

Thomas Merton by Edward Rice 001This photo, from The Man in the Sycamore Tree by Edward Rice shows Merton “at the height of his powers. He was deep in his Buddhist studies, and the monastery had become a background for his work rather than the subject  Less than three years later he was dead.”

Merton concluded his talk (Marxism and Monastic Perspectives) the morning of his death with these remarks. “It is the view that if you once penetrate by detachment and purity of heart to the inner secret of the ground of your ordinary experience, you attain to a liberty that nobody can touch, that nobody can affect, that no political change of circumstances can do anything to . . . The essential thing for this, in the Buddhist tradition, is the formation of spiritual masters who can bring it out in the hearts of people who are as yet unformed. Wherever you have somebody capable of giving some kind of direction and instruction to a small group attempting to do this thing, attempting to love and serve God and reach union with him, you are bound to have some kind of monasticism. . . It represents an instinct of the human heart, and it represents a charism given by God to man. It cannot be rooted out, because it does not depend on man. . . I will conclude on that note. I believe the plan is to have all the questions for this morning’s lectures this evening at the panel. So I will disappear from view and we can all have a Coke or something. Thank you so very much. . . 

Several hours later, Thomas Merton was found dead on a terrazzo floor with an electric fan still running on his chest. The priest who pushed it away received a small shock. Reflecting upon Merton’s passing, it is impossible not to recall the final line of The Seven Storey Mountain:

           That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.

The Silent Life 001     This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity . . . It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian’.  —  Dalai Lama

Dzogchen and Kerouac — Alive with Words

Longchen Rabjam 001LONGCHENPA and JACK KEROUAC — a Tibetan yogi and a western author — reshaped our world through their writings.

Few authors stir our imagination in the West like Jack Kerouac. Kerouac rewrote the use of language in literature.

Longchenpa in Tibet wafts the same smoke and scent. He established the efficacy of words to express the inexpressible: The Dharmakaya. A state Vessantara described as “unconditioned consciousness, beyond space and time.”

On the Road 001Completed in the early fifties, ON THE ROAD was published in 1957. The true life adventures of Neal Cassady, left (portrayed as Dean Moriarty) and Kerouac, right (Sal Paradise) made icons of both men. Born Jean-Louis Kerouac on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac’s native language was French. His early difficulties with English instilled in him an obsession with the use of words to set the stage for memory relived realities. Known as Memory Babe in high school for his astonishing ability to recall events and conversations word for word, Kerouac was also a gifted athlete who went to Columbia on a football scholarship. Already set in a lifetime pattern of refusal to conform to custom or discipline, Kerouac dropped out of football and resolved to spend his life writing. Allen Ginsberg became a lifetime friend of Jack’s at Columbia University.

Published a year after On the Road, THE DHARMA BUMS rewrote my life. Like all of Kerouac’s works, The Dharma Bums is autobiographical, based on adventures with the poet, Gary Snyder (Japhy). Now deeply immersed in Buddhism after a trip to Mexico, Jack (Ray) shares three week old cheese, wine and a boxcar with a “little bum sitting crosslegged at his end before a pitiful repast of one can of sardines.”

          “He ate the cheese and bread and drank the wine with gusto and gratitude. I was pleased. I reminded myself of the line in the Diamond Sutra that says, “Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word.” I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection…I believed I was an oldtime bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world (usually the immense triangular arc of New York to Mexico City to San Francisco) in order to turn the wheel of the True Meaning, or Dharma, and gain merit for myself as a future Buddha (Awakener) and as a future Hero in Paradise. I had not met Japhy Ryder yet, I was about to the next week, or heard anything about “Dharma Bums” although at this time I was a perfect Dharma bum myself and considered myself a religious wanderer. The little bum in the gondola solidified all my beliefs by warming up to the wine and talking and finally whipping out a tiny slip of paper which contained a prayer by Saint Teresa announcing that after her death she will return to the earth by showering it with roses from heaven, for all living creatures.”  — The Dharma Bums

I’m sure that passage had long gone from my mind many years later when my wife, Angelina, and I  began work on our novel PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation. Of course I knew who Teresa (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux) was when I took my lunch break from Technicolor movie lab, one block from Times Square. I did not know that the her reliquary was being displayed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Before I entered the Cathedral’s great vaulted wooden entrance, Angelina had already envisioned the rough outline of a story concerning a terrorist attack on Jerusalem that would frame our proposed plan for peace in the Middle East. What we lacked was a hook, a pivot upon which to focus our story, a hub around which to fashion a plot.Spear of Destiny 001 So when I realized Teresa’s relics were present, I entered a fervent plea for her intervention, “Give us a hook, please, dear Saint.”

I have spent much of my life either in, or on the way to or from, bookstores. So it was in character for me to swing by Barnes & Noble on my return to Technicolor. There, in the basement, among the New Age and Esoterica collection, was a book I had never seen before — that in itself was amazing. For this fascinating title should have drawn my gaze many times over. THE SPEAR OF DESTINY by Trevor Ravenscroft was first published in 1973, not long after I first read THE DHARMA BUMS, and had been in paperback since 1982. Subtitled The Occult Power Behind the Spear which pierced the side of Christ . . . and how Hitler inverted the Force in a bid to conquer the World, I knew I had the answer to my prayer, and within fifteen minutes! To this day, Teresa is the patron saint of PURE VISION.

When I showed Angelina THE SPEAR OF DESTINY that evening, she understood immediately. The spear shoved into Jesus’ side by the Centurion Longinus to ease his suffering would become the starting point of our narrative. E - Hung - E 001

LONGCHEN RABJAMPA, 1308-1364, and the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (seen here), were students of Rigdzin Kumaradza, a great master of Dzogchen (Clear Light Great Completion). Longchenpa performed the most extraordinary feat in Tibetan Rangjung Dorje 001Buddhism. He mastered the expression of the infinite through the finite expression of the written word. His father was a tantric yogi. At the moment of his conception, his mother dreamed of a sun placed on the head of a lion, illuminating the world. Kumaradza’s training was strenuous and involved continuous moving from encampment to encampment amidst the most rugged Tibetan terrain. This training instilled in Longchenpa a distaste for traditional scholars and monastics. The day of Longchenpa’s arrival, Kumaradza told his students, “Last night I dreamt that a wonderful bird, which announced itself to be a divine bird, came with a large flock in attendance and carried away my books in all directions. Therefore, someone will come to hold my lineage.” The terminology we associate with Dzogchen today dates to Longchenpa.

His works are available with commentary by numerous prominent teachers. Padma Publishing under the direction of Richard Barron (Lama Chokyi Nyima, shown here with Chokyi Nyima 001Kalu Rinpoche, from The Chariot For Travelling the Path to Freedom) has done a superlative job. The Precious Treasury of the Basic Space of Phenomena and Longchnepa’s commentary on his own text, A Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission, are amazing books.

Reading Tibetan is essential to serious Vajrayana pratice, and without that ability chanting is not possible. Dharma books which do not include the original text will not have lasting value. Tibetan is a surprisingly easy language to learn to read. The key is spelling. You can learn to spell  by first identifying the letters, and then recognizing the accent marks and how they affect the pronunciation. Translating scriptural texts is difficult. The language is cryptic and shadowed with vaguery. The translation team established  by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche is to be commended. The The Precious Treasury of the Basic Space of Phenomena has the Tibetan text on the left hand page and an English translation on the right. A Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission is entirely in English with a glossary in the back.

      Just as all light is subsumed within the sun as its source, all phenomena are subsumed within awakened mind as their source —  Longchen Rabjam

The Nyingma (the Ancient Ones) school of Tibetan Buddhism dates to Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche. One of the greatest strengths of the Nyingma — a strong lay presence — has served it well in the West. Ngagpas, non-monastic tantric yogis, are an essential element to a strong Dharma community. Many Nyingma teachers have imparted their wisdom and dedication to learning Tibetan and essential Dharma practice through empowerments (wangs) and verbal authorization (lungs). Growing strong communities without the cultural and mental entrapment of monastic vows  has been effective in the West.

Vidyadharas 001Queen of Great Bliss 001

Faith is the great engine which drives spiritual progress. “Go,said Jesus, “Your faith has healed you.” The man recovered his sight and followed Jesus down the road. (Gospel of Mark 10:52)

RIGDZIN JIGMA LINGPA (1730-1798), born over 400 years after Longchenpa, had faith. His faith transformed Buddhism in Tibet, and his faith continues to transform the world. Jigme Jigmed Lingpa 001Lingpa’s devotion to Padmasambhava was so strong that, one night in 1757 while engaged in a solitary retreat, he entered a deep meditative state after crying passionately because he was not in Guru Rinpoche’s presence. In a state of luminous clarity, he experienced himself flying a great distance on the back of a white lion. He arrived at the Bodhnath Stupa in Nepal and was met by a wisdom dakini who gave him a small, beautiful casket before vanishing. Inside were five rolls of yellow paper with dakini script as well as seven crystal beads. At the urging of another dakini, Jigme Lingpa swallowed the rolls of paper and the crystal beads. When he returned from his state of Ultimate Union (sungjuk), he understood that the Longchen (Great Expanse) Nyingthig (Heart Essence) teachings and realizations, entrusted to him many lifetimes earlier by Guru Rinpoche, had reawakened in his mindstream.

Om svabhava shudda sarva dharma svabhava shuddo ham.

Om So  Bawa 002

All Dharmas are pure in nature and I am pure in nature.

Several years later, Jigme Lingpa had three pure visions of Longchenpa. In the first vision, he received the transmission of both the words and meaning of Longchenpa’s teachings. In the second vision, he received the blessing of Longchenpa’s speech and was empowered to propagate his teachings. The final vision imparted to Jigme Lingpa the vast wisdom mind of Longchenpa and the vast power of his enlightened awareness: Longchen Nyingthig.

Seven years would pass before Jigme Lingpa passed the sadhanas to students. Rigdzin Dupa: The Assemblage of Vidyadharas (Eight Enlightened Masters), Yumka Dechen Gyalmo: The Queen of Great Bliss (Yeshe Tsogyal), and Senge Dongchen: The Lion Faced Dakini form the foundation practices of these powerful teachings. Padmasambhava/Guru Rinpoche lives in these practices — his mind, his power, his Pure Vision — available to all those who receive the empowerment and verbal transmission to practice from authorized teachers in the Longchen Nyingthig lineage.

Book cover for Blessing Power of the BuddhasHidden Teachings of Tibet 001

Many wonderful and learned books have been written about Guru Rinpoche/Padmasambhava. Tulku Thondup Rinpoche is an authority on the Longchen Nyingthig. In addition to Hidden Teachings of Tibet he translated the two Longchen Nyingthig texts pictured above, The Queen of Great Bliss and The  Assemblage of Vidyadharas.Dilgo Khyentse 001 Also, Blessing Power of the Buddhas: Sacred Objects, Secret Lands by Norma Levine provides a refreshing overview of Guru Rinpoche’s power within the context of real life adventures. Norma Levine knew nothing of Buddhism in the early 1970’s when she was traveling to Northern Scotland to visit a friend. She stopped over at Samye Ling, the first Dharma Center in the West founded by Akong Rinpoche and Chögyam Trungpa. Her “overnight” coincided with the first visit to the West by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a giant (literally) of the Nyingma lineage. She stayed for two months, never made it to Northern Scotland, and figuratively never left Samye Ling.

Khenchen Palden Sherab (1938-2010) and his brother Tulku Tsewang Dongyal (born 1950), from the Kham region of Tibet, have been tireless and ever-cheerful teachers. Their father, Chime Namgyal, was also a Lama. Therein lies the great strength of the Nyingma family. Together they founded Padmasambhava Buddhist Center in the Catskills of New York with centers worldwide. The many books they authored together form the greatest single body of properly assembled works available to Western students. The Dark Red Amulet on the Vajrakilaya practice exemplifies excellence in Dharma. The sadhana, its history and lineage is introduced. Then line by line, with the Tibetan text and transliteration, the practice is explained. The entire sadhana is then given at the end of the book.

Lions Gaze 001Garab Dorje is the first human teacher in the Dzogchen lineage. He brought the teachings from the pure lands and transmitted them to Manjushrimitra and Padmasambhava. Garab Dorje’s classic text Tsig Sum Nedek — The Three Words that Strike the Crucial Point is presented by Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal in Lion’s Gaze. The brothers present teachings on both Garab Dorje’s text and Patrul Rinpoche’s commentary, The Special Teachings of the Wise and Glorious Sovereign. Patrul was a student of Jigme Gyalwe Nyugu, a direct disciple of Jigme Lingpa, and from him received original transmission of the Longchen Nyingthig.

The portal from the East opened Westward in San Francisco. Two East Coast writers literally blasted the door from its hinges. On Thursday, October 13, 1955, Allen Ginsberg read Howl at The Six Gallery in San Francisco. Words reshaped reality. America hasn’t been the same since. Kerouac portrayed the event in The Dharma Bums.

          Anyway, I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at the Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was theHowl - film 001 one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o’clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading, wailing his poem “Wail” drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” (like a jam session) — The Dharma Bums

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Books and himself an excellent poet — A Coney Island of the MInd — was in the San Francisco audience the night of Allen Ginsberg’s reading. Recognizing Allen’s brilliance and inspired by what he heard, Ferlinghetti decided to publish the poem. Over fifty years later, a feature film, Howl, was made about the event. It includes portions of Allen’s poem which are set to animation. The film is an excellent portrayal and highly recommended.

I was able to hear a reading of Howl myself when I attended the Last Happening of the Sixties at Miami Marine Stadium, December 22, 1969. Allen Ginsberg decided at the last minute to add his father, Louis, also a poet, to his scheduled reading. Miami city officials, still reeling from the effects of a Doors concert earlier in the year when Jim Morrison reportedly exposed himself, refused permission.

Allen was fuming when the reading started. I was among the chilly members of the audience, my own psyche reeling from the death of my mother a year earlier and the Woodstock Festival in August. Howl spoke to me that night, and Allen gave a memorable reading. When he launched into a poem about the Czechoslovakia police state, the stadium manager had heard enough and announced the reading was over. Not for Allen, though. When he didn’t stop, the manager cut the power to Allen’s microphone and turned the stadium lights on full. Jeremiah railed on, screaming. With the music piping in over the sound system finally drowning him out, Allen left the stage to a standing ovation.

A few months later, I was back in Lawrence, Kansas, and not attending my classes at KU. Vietnam was no longer an option. My birth date had received a high number in the first draft lottery. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in town to do a reading. I went with my friend George Kimball, himself a writer and friend of Ginsberg’s. After the reading, Ferlinghetti agreed to come with us to The White House, the notorious hippie house a block from the campus where George and I lived with a crazy collection of smokers, yogis and dealers. A coterie of Ferlinghetti fans accompanied us. We sat in a circle in the largest room — on the floor, orange crates, rocking chairs and a double bed. The house’s ever present marijuana supply was passing freely. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare . . . I don’t know who started chanting . . . it was de rigueur for the times.

Suddenly, on my left George Kimball sailed a tin of Bugle Boy Tobacco, barely missing the blonde across the room seated on the floor next to Ferlinghetti. “What was that for?” The group demanded in unison. “She was off key,” George replied. The party ended on that sour note. Within minutes the crowd was gone. That same year George was defeated in his run for Douglas County sheriff. He later moved to Boston and became an award-winning sports journalist for the Boston Globe.

Decades later, Kerouac’s and Ginsber’s contributions, beyond the literary, have liberated our thought stream and opened our doors of perception. The Beat Explosion wasn’t about wine and sex, just as Woodstock wasn’t about drugs and music. Words made the difference. Writing for the moment, they wrote us all into a new time.

          Carried by the natural rhythms of thought and speech, and the mind’s capacity to mock the rhythm of what it thinks about–driven mostly, in this case, by the staccato beat of freight trains–some of Kerouac’s sentences roll on for a whole page. — Gerald Nicosia

Jack Kerouac gave us the holiness of the everyday moment. Myriad works have been naked-angels by john-tytellwritten on his life and writing. John Tytell, Professor of English at Queens College (CUNY) wrote a classic study of the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg and William Burroughs. It’s an excellent read for fans of these authors.

In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac dramatized a crucial shift in the Beat sensibility: instead of continuing to seek escape from boredom and the spiritually corrupting emphasis on materialism and careers through desperate activity, Kerouac began an inward search for new roots. The Dharma Bums replaces the hysteria of On The Road with a quietly contemplative retreat toward meditation. — from NAKED ANGELS: The Lives and Loves of the Beat Generation by John Tytell

Of the Kerouac biographies, I found The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson to be the most readable and informed source for Jack’s life and vision leading to On The Road. The author’s insights are authentic. She had a two year relationship with Kerouac and was with him the day the New York Times Book Review of On The Road legitimized his struggles. Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia is amazing. Herein is contained not only every inning, but every pitch of Jack’s troubled life. Mr. Nicosia is to be commended for his efforts. On the Road: The Official Movie Companion is another must for Kerouac fans.

The Voice is All 001Thinking about his months away from home, he reminded himself in emotional language that sounds directly translated from his French thoughts, “I hope, little madam, that you realize that destination is not really a tape at the end of a straight-way racing course, but that it is a tape on an oval that you must break over and over again as you race madly around.” —  From The Voice is All.

Jack Kerouac died on October 21st, 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida after a lifetime of alcohol abuse. He was 47 years old.

On the Road - movie companion 001

KAGYU IMAGES: The Lion’s Roar

Niguma                                                                                                               Sukhasiddi

Sukhasiddhi 001Niguma 001

Rangdrol 001The Kagyu (Lineage of Transmitted Mastery) began with the songs of Dakini’s calling to Tilopa one thousand years ago. Thus began a remarkable odyssey transmitted from Master to Disciple unto this present age. The teachings of the dakini, revealing the nature of mind, are couched in their secret speech: ‘secret’ in the sense of self-secret, naturally discreet, because it only makes sense to those sufficiently awakened to understand. Their discrete terms reveal jnana, the bright lamp of essence-awareness which automatically dispels the darkness of ignorance. — from TILOPA by Tai Situ Rinpoche, perhaps the ultimate Dakini Realm instruction manual, published by Kagyu Samye Ling, Eskdalemuir, Scotland, the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the West.

Kalu - Karmapa - Trungpa 001Three remarkable Kagyu Masters ushered the Dharma westward in the twentieth century. Kalu Rinpoche, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje and Chögyam Trungpa.

Jamgon Kontrul 001Situ Rinpoche 001Two Heart Sons followed close behind. Jamgon Kongtrul and Tai Situ Rinpoche have forged close bonds with Western students. Bringing traditional teachings along with a strong command of Enlish these teachers have assured the survival of Tilopa’s legacy.

Dusu, Khyempa - 17th Karmapa 001Today the Kagyu Lineage is identified with Karmapa, the Black Hat Lama. The First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa pictured above on the left was one of three wild yogis who studied under Gampopa, who instituted the monastic tradition that exists to this day. Dusum Khyenpa and his companions were expelled for consuming alcohol and dancing wildly in celebration of a Dakini festival. Gampopa realized his most talented students had been expelled by the master of discipline when he saw the birds flying away from his monastery and the dakas and dakinis departing. He left his retreat cave and chased after the three yogis imploring them to stay.

Dusum Khyenpa 001Dusum Khyenpa eventually became known as Karmapa, Knower of the Three Times, Man of Action. Many miraculous events are associated with Dusum Khyenpa but none more incredible than the letter he left detailing where he would be reborn. Thus Karma Pakshi became the first incarnate lama in Tibet. This sequence has repeated itself now seventeen times. Before Rangjung Rigpe Dorje died in 1981 he left an amulet with Tai Situ Rinpoche. The prediction letter within the amulet led to the discovery of Orgyen Trinley Dorje born in Tibet in 1985.

KarmapakshiThe Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, above, born in 1204, set the standard for intensive mystical mastery we expect of Karmapas. Caught between the demands of conflicting Chinese rulers, Karmapakshi was forced to drink poison, thrown off a cliff and into flames by Kublai Khan. Each time he emerged unharmed forcing the Emperor to recognize his ultimate nobility. While in China he arranged for a giant Buddha statue to be constructed at his monastery, Tsurphu near Lhasa. Upon his return to Tibet he discovered the statue was leaning to one side. He sat in meditation in front of it and, imitating the statue, he leaned to the side. As he slowly righted himself, the statue straightened along with him. (photo by Lawrence Birney)

BELOW – 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso w/ 16th Karmapa (left) & 17th Karmapa (right)

16th Karmapa & Dalai Lama 00117th Karmapa - Dalai Lama 001

Karmapa 16 & 17 001The 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje and the 17th, Orgyen Trinley Dorje.

Sangye Tenzin Rinpoche, a great and wonderful teacher of the Dharma (below), of Kham, Tibet with the 17th Karmapa. Sangye Tenzin was a veritable wellspring of information and inspiration to all those who came in contact with him. He shone with a genuine desire that all of his students truly ‘get it’, that we appreciate the wish fulfilling gift which he was bestowing on us. His presence was a Rain of Blessing.


The most pronounced quality of the Kagyu is the relationship between students and master which is passed on from one lifetime to the next, each recognizing the other. Situ & Karmapa 001Tai Situ (far reaching, unshakeable) Rinpoche is the root lama of the Karmapa. He was the one given the letter by Rangjung Rikpe Dorje that led to the discovery of the 17th Karmapa. Here they are shortly after their reunion in a wonderful photo from Ken Holmes’ book Karmapa that details the entire chain of events. Ken is a long time student of the Karmapa and Situ Rinpoche and has lived and taught at Samye Ling in Scotland for many years. He has edited the classic books by Situ Rinpoche published there. He and his wife Katia have also translated Dharma texts.

Situ & Kalu 001Kalu Rinpoche, a meditation master who lived from 1905 to 1989, was instrumental in training many young incarnate lamas. After studying under the 11th Situ Rinpoche, Padma Wangchuk, he helped train the current Situ Rinpoche, Pema Donyo Nyingche Wangmo. They are shown here together shortly after the Tibetan diaspora in 1959. Kalu Rinpoche spent many years in solitary retreat in the Himalayas before the Karmapa asked him to visit the West and teach the Dharma. Homage to Kalu Rinpoche 001He first established a traditional three year retreat program in France. His life story is well told in The Chariot for Travelling the Path to Freedom by Ken McLeod. The drawings of Tilopa and the dakinis Sukhasiddhi and Niguma are from this book which is a must have for Kalu Rinpoche students. Homage to Khyab Je Kalu Rinpoche published by Lama Lodu and KDK Publications in San Francisco is another must. The wonderful photo of Kalu Rinpoche, the Karmapa and Chögyam Trungpa is from this book.

Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche was born September 17, 1990. He was recognized by Situ Rinpoche and made his first visit to the United States in 1995.Bokar & Kalu 001 I was part of the welcoming party when he arrived at Kennedy Airport with his former student, then teacher, Bokar Rinpoche. I had met the previous Kalu Rinpoche and received one empowerment from him. My faith in Situ Rinpoche was complete, but I was apprehensive meeting the new Kalu Rinpoche. After all, we were there to welcome a four year old boy. This was my first experience meeting a young tulku. When they walked through customs the hairs on my arm stood on end. I realized that THIS ACTUALLY WAS KALU RINPOCHE. Kalu & Bokar dancing 001

No experience to date can match that for confirming the authenticity of Vajrayana teachings. The next month was magical. Bokar Rinpoche gave many teachings and transmissions from the Shangpa Kagyu tradition, and we also shared Kalu Rinpoche’s joy at having a fresh young body. Since the previous Kalu Rinpoche had projected such a stern exterior, albeit with an inner radiance and glow, this new incarnation was a fresh bloom on the rose. (Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche photos by my friend and construction collaborator, Steve Petty from Salt Spring Island.)

Bokar & Kalu marmekan 001In 2011, Kalu Rinpoche visited the United States for the first time since completing his formal training. Unfortunately, he chose not to visit New York. Therefore many devoted students who were closely connected to the previous Kalu Rinpoche were unable to see him during that visit. Hopefully, he will return to the US soon and give teachings in New York at his monastery or anywhere else that he feels is appropriate. In fact, I extend an invitation to teach at my home anytime he would like.

Trungpa 001

Chögyam Trungpa was a phenomenon. Arriving at Cambridge University from India in the mid-sixties, he perfected his English, learned Western psychology and mastered the culture. After founding Samye Ling in Scotland with Akong Rinpoche he moved on to America, and we are so thankful that he did. Trungpa was a tireless teacher until his death in 1987. He authored close to thirty books which have had a wide impact in introducing Vajrayana to the West. His first book BORN IN TIBET was published in 1966. I read it in the early 70’s. It set me on (as of now) a forty year cascade through the most powerful mental training system on the planet.

The lion’s roar is fearlessness in the sense that every situation in life is workable. Nothing is rejected as bad or grasped as good. But everything we experience in our life-situations, any type of emotion, is workable. From THE MYTH OF FREEDOM.

DRAGON THUNDER: My Life With Chögyam Trungpa by Diana Mukpo, his wife of nearly twenty years, is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time. This is an entertaining view behind the roller coaster carnival of Trungpa’s life. DRAGON THUNDER IS A MUST READ! Chögyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision by Fabrice Midal offers a thoughtful and complete review of Trungpa’s work.

Shambhala was an enlightened society that manifested nonagression. Its geographical location was in the middle of Asia, in the middle, or the heart, of the Orient. The Shambhala society was able to transmute aggression into love. Consequently, everybody in Shambhala attained enlightenment. So they no longer needed to domesticate their animals, and they no longer needed to fight wars. Finally, the whole society, the whole country — including all the buildings — ceased to exist on the earthly plane. This is the story of Shambhala. — Chögyam Trungpa from Midal’s book.

Above all, Trungpa championed the ideal of Shambhala and presented it to the West. fShambhala is a Pure Land, a beyul, the home of the sacred Kalachakra teachings, the Highest Tantra vehicle. In a novel written with my wife Angelina, the  Shambhala teachings are highlighted through a fictional journey which explores their current need in creating peace in the world. PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation encourages a closer look at the spiritual forces that infuse the world’s political battles.

Trungpa’s genius manifested itself in many ways, but none more impressive or lasting than the creation of Naropa University in 1974. Today it is a thriving liberal arts college boasting among other accomplishments, The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The university was named after Naropa, who was the illustrious abbot of Nalanda in eleventh century India. After an encounter with a powerful Dakini, Naropa recognized his knowledge was useless without wisdom. The Dakini empowered Naropa to seek her brother Tilopa who straightens Naropa out, so to speak.

Our story began with Tilopa, or rather with the Dakini’s call to Tilopa. Feminine Wisdom is mother of the Buddhas. Without the discrete terms of the dakini, teachings revealing mind, the lamp of essence awareness dispelling ignorance’s darkness, known of itself, occurring by itself and lucid in itself cannot be recognized — From Situ Rinpoche’s TILOPA as is the calligraphy below.discrete terms of dakini 001Tilopa’s Kagyu oral transmission lineage sprang from the discrete terms of the Dakini, Mahamudra, The Great Seal, Wisdom Beyond Knowledge. The punishing apprenticeship he put Naropa through is the stuff of legend. Naropa passed his lineage on to Marpa who carried the teaching to Tibet, he himself undertook three arduous  journeys to India to obtain his treasures. Milarepa, the poet-yogi, earned his mantle through another epic apprenticeship. Gampopa, guru to Dusum Khyenpa, the First Karmapa, studied under Milarepa.

Tilopa’s teachings are summed up in The Ganges Mahamudra, which he emparted to Naropa on the banks of the great river. There are numerous commentaries and translations of this root text but my favorite is found in MOTHER OF THE BUDDHAS by Lex Hixon. Hixon was a great contributor to our modern spiritual dialogue. Born on Christmas Day 1941, he began his studies with Vine Deloria, a Lakota Sioux elder, at the age of nineteen. Six years later he began studying with Swami Nikhilananda, a disciple of Sarada Devi, Ramakrishna’s wife. Hixon’s epic work on Ramakrishna, GREAT SWAN, is brilliant. It is always worth recalling Ramakrishna, as his life in nineteenth century Bengal is an open mirror to Tilopa’s eleventh century India.

Mother of the Buddhas 001Great Swan 001The dedicated practitioner experiences the spiritual way as a turbulent mountain stream, tumbling dangerously among boulders. When maturity is reached the river flows smoothly and patiently with the powerful sweep of the Ganges.  Emptying into the ocean of Mahamudra, the water becomes ever-expanding light that pours into great Clear Light – without direction, destination, division, distinction or description.  Tilopa – Mother of the Buddhas.

The Kagyu lineage web has been spun by generations of students standing upon the shoulders of their teachers, who in turn became the students in their next life. A story line like this could only continue with the ability to identify these departed masters upon their return.

Jamgon Kontrul - 16 Karmapa 001The third Jamgon Kongtrul, pictured at left with the 16th Karmapa, was universally loved by all who met him. I had the great honor of taking the Kalachakra and Shitro empowerments from him. His death in 1992, at the height of the search for the 17th Karmapa, was a shock to the entire Vajrayana community.

There is no more serious task for any Karmapa than orchestrating the search mission for incarnate lamas. In 1996 the 17th Karmapa informed representatives of Pullahari Monastery that he had information concerning the rebirth of Jamgon Kongtrul. At the moment the Karmapa handed over the letter containing his instructions, there was a single clap of thunder. The Karmapa himself was only eleven years old at that time!

The Karmapa indicated that the 4th Jamgon Kongtrul would be found south of Tsurphu, the E MA HO 001Karmapa’s seat in Tibet. In his exercise book he drew some pictures of the mountains, a river and the house (two storeys with the door facing exactly east) where he would be found.  The Karmapa also mentioned by name several nearby villages and the number of persons in the family (eight). He even informed them of the most auspicious day to begin their search, several months hence. Even so, there were difficulties with the search and the party had to return to Tsurphu for clarification. Perhaps, their faith in an untested eleven year old Karmapa was shaky. The Karmapa seemed to toy with them and merely repeated his instructions. On their return to the area, the group found the fourth Jamgon Kongtrul. The entire story can be found online in E MA HO.

Karmapa & Jamgon 001

(left) The Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje and the Fourth Jamgon Kongtrul, Karma Lodro Chokyi Nyima in 1996. Jamgon Kongtrul today and Tai Situ Rinpoche (above).

As Tilopa promised, the Kagyu lineage will continue to bring a great deal of both temporal and ultimate benefit to the world.

Om Soti 001